Under the Sigh of Phantom Commerce

“Would you be wholly in your own image, I would change nothing…”

– Cooley High

We were out walking, the friends, and came absent-mindedly to Clark Street. Often mistaken for a diagonal here in Chicago, it goes mostly unswerving through its southern route but bends erratic due north for about eight miles. There, the alert pedestrian travels through several classes: moderately wealthy; infirm bourgeois; prole and lumpen prole—the rule being that funds decrease in direct proportion to the increase in address number. Our present location was once clearest boujee and we recalled the knick-knack emporia, brightly lit chains, and jogging cults of twenty-five years ago. We passed the famous Reebie Storage Wearhouse, built 1922 (same year Carter plundered King Tut), guarded by stone statues of Ramses II, stamped with hieroglyphs and terra cotta, and always stunningly out of place no matter the economic turn of its surroundings. But this Ozymandian folly is a diversion, we realized, an homage to old prosperity and the might of tote and freight. It grins sadistically in its scarab glamour, making a cruel feudal joke at the expense of Capital. We admire its high-born sense of irony and salute the mocking shadow of its great Pharaonic sneer from below. All around this weird temple, empty store fronts whine in flickering neon. The occasional construction site shows that labor’s ghosts still work, just barely, but to park money by shifting the embers of fake retail in a lunarscape of gross unearned revenue. We used to call this area yuppie once upon a time—or rather, yuppie-like, wannabe upward aspirational. Sure, it always had its loping leftovers from Old Town’s working class and arty yesterdays, terse figures exiting one of the Men’s Hotels or bumming squares by Mildred and Schubert. But the levels of high rent sustenance pulled the most weight post Reagan, even if the available products were firmly middle class and the sports bars were a little too far from the ballpark.

This vampire state of things is general all over, we opined. Rents are far too high for what’s left of goods and services to even bother in these parts, which is quite intentional. Like Patty Hearst, the hostage is entirely willing. Lots yield more profit as empty shells, and no middle manager troubles about hiring, no boss suffers the pain of minimum wage hikes. Chicago has ferociously embraced rentier extravagance, a new vacuous Valley of Kings where Zilch and Nawt rule alone in their ghastly grandeur. As the last few Columbian Expo-era store fronts are demolished, in their place crappy yawning glass windows display bags of Quikrete and empty front desks in bone white voids—institutional waystations that might be essential oil superstores, psych ward admissions, or dog wellness clinics. These lonesome nouveau squats await new clients who will stay a month or two, then evaporate in stupor. Somewhere, a great landfill of metal acronym signs slowly rises… a useless library of obscure characters, relics of forgotten organs of janky sales and wellness outlets.

Though dropouts all, we paused for education. Looking around us, we realized that the text was not impenetrable. The lesson plan seemed opaque but it was easily pieced together from the glaring evidence, and the help of a good book. We were wandering in a museum devoted to the puzzling religious celebrations of Neoliberalism. The curse of Set had hit this quadrant of Clark after 2008, a commercial dead zone that is manna for unproductive capitals. In the final analysis, nothing is hidden but everything is transformed. How does this Pa Ubu theory of commerce function? Luckily for us, Marcel Bealu’s The Impersonal Adventure has just been translated and published by Wakefield Press. First published in France in 1954, it imagines the most ridiculous of production apocalypses. It’s not a big leap from glut to dearth, all else—deathwise—being relative.

Bealu’s narrator Fidibus has just concluded his business in a glum provincial town. Aimless and enervated, he finds a note in his pocket from a friend telling him to look up a mister “Og… Ogs…s” when he’s finished the job. This quest leads him to a part of town the locals call the Island, a river-bound district filled with huge shops and warehouses that seem to serve no one. He becomes involved with a sinister Virgil named Squint, moves into a hotel that seems designed by Escher, and falls in love with the mannequin creation of a mysterious and powerful Pygmalion professor. This automaton is the doppelganger of the professor’s flesh-and-blood daughter, Corinne, and the wealthy mercantile family’s name is soon revealed as Ogyges, the mysterious “Og… Ogs…s” of the friend’s half-legible note. The family employs almost everyone on the Island, but there are no customers. No one buys anything, yet everyone is a sales representative. This insane version of the goods and service economy is explained in detail by Corinne’s mother, Beatrice, the last living matriarch of the Ogyges:

Buying selling… today that’s just a false front concealing a subtler activity. It used to be that the job of representative was straightforward… life was meaningful… work had a purpose. But little by little, the sellers began to outnumber the buyers, soon there we no more buyers… Everyone’s goods piled up in storage while the inhabitants lived miserably. Then… the professor proposed his solution: to completely transform the enterprise by transforming the inhabitants’ dwellings into new warehouses. For a long time now, everyone has been aware of the uselessness of their work (since there are no customers). Luxury isn’t enough to give them the feeling of ‘being at home’… they’re remunerated for this daily coming and going for which they have no use… This sense of emptiness leaves them with a bad conscience… they have a blind confidence in the professor… (whose) latest notion is to sell off the business, to dispose of the whole island… The few people who vaguely understand that this state of stagnation will lead to a collapse can only hope for the resumption of business activities… (but) they know that given time, the outcome will be the same, but it would at least be possible to live a normal life, the life they lead before… but they are fewer and fewer because the Management … has become completely invisible… Shareholders, Directors, Department supervisors, the executive chairman himself, they’ve all vanished as though swallowed up in the ground. The night watchman is the only one left.

The fetish object mannequin-girl leads the narrator through a mountain of transport stoppage, the massive freight of Victorian objects clogging up the mismanaged space of the Island. Endless rooms echo with the pointless tasks of muddled clerks doing bullshit jobs, while the babbling professor’s schemes to staunch the hemorrhage of useless goods only ensures his place among a defeated class of capitalists relegated to obsolescence. The only solutions he can muster demand that the population of bedraggled sales associates freely give up their living space to house the vast quantities of immobile stock, upon which they lavish pointless labor in a parody of the rituals of employment and the circulation of commodity-bearing markets.

This increasingly desperate state of affairs soon erupts into a mass psychological crisis. In the final pyrrhic chapter of the book, the Island’s residents surge forward in an orgiastic implosion of financial uncertainty and bitter nostalgia, smashing and destroying stock and street, until they subside like a crashed wave and brokenheartedly bury the professor—instigator and final casualty of this apocalypse—who has died in a fire set by the crazed Beatrice. Fidibus finds the dead body of his beloved Corinne, drowned first in overproduction, then in the grimy river. She is the mirror of the bald and beautiful showroom doll, Muta, as stiff and as still, lying washed up on the mudbank.

“Yeah, they’re dead, they’re–all messed up.”

– Night of the Living Dead

We thought on these things a while, still standing on Clark Street, unmoving but not unmoved. Mourn not the bosses who mourned not our lowered wages, but have a pity for the ways of life which grew up around them and in spite of them. Vanished ways of dealing with things, vanished ways of dealing with people and life. We had tried, porters and waitresses all, to keep sane and made that strange and indefinable thing, proletarskaya kultura. Vanished pensions, departed diners, cosmic liquidity and the gluttony of space. The middle managers remain, surviving those bosses who have faded into retirement or played most foully for it. Perhaps there is some surplus pity after all, one of us said. Woolworths used to have a cafeteria, where the most extraordinary things were overheard and ladies brought you pie and coffee. S’now falling faintly, memories surface like sirens. What importance, nostalgia?  We hadn’t an answer.

Marcel Bealu worked as a haberdasher (Chicago had many of them on Roosevelt Road, all now closed). Max Jacob counseled him to “never renounce hats, they’ll become part of your legend”. He was also a bookseller (a few still left in Chicago, but only one or two of the old bulging, labyrinthine kind). He counted Breton, Lacan, Magritte and Max Ernst as friends and customers. His poetry was admired by Artaud and his legacy was secured in 1944 with his phantasmagoric novel, The Experience of the Night. But this little adventure is even better, in our humble opinion. And brilliantly translated by George MacLennon, says one of us, an old butcher’s son, walking a little ahead down the block.

(To BNB, mögest du in Frieden gehen)

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.